Furore over Australian soccer team’s match in war-torn Myanmar during AFC Cup

An Australian A-League team has been criticised for playing a football match in war-torn Myanmar against the government’s official travel advice, with some observers calling the move dangerous.

The Macarthur Bulls, a team from south-western Sydney, defeated Myanmar team Shan United 3-0 during an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup match held at the almost-empty Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon in late September.

Human rights groups have expressed concerns about Shan United’s ownership and links to businesses controlled by the Myanmar military junta, including one sanctioned by Australia.

There are now calls for the Shan United players to be denied visas to Australia ahead of an upcoming match on November 30.

The Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continues to advise that Australians “do not travel” to Myanmar “due to ongoing civil unrest, armed conflict and the volatile security environment” in the wake of the 2021 military coup.

“Violence, including explosions and attacks, can occur anywhere and anytime, including in Yangon,” the Smartraveller advice reads, adding that attacks may be planned against locations that foreigners frequent, and that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention.

“We encourage all Australians to heed this advice,” DFAT told the ABC.

The ABC understands DFAT officials spoke to Macarthur Football Club’s management and Football Australia to reiterate the government’s official travel advice.

Myanmar has not been barred from international competitions, and its women’s team recently played against Vietnam in the South-East Asian Games.(Reuters: Chalinee Thirasupa)

In a statement, Macarthur said it is a member of Football Australia, the Asian Football Confederation and hence FIFA.

“As such, we operate within the rule and regulation framework adopted and implemented through the governance of these organisations,” the club said.

Macarthur FC players on a soccer field with empty seats in the background.

Football Australia requested the match be relocated to a neutral venue, but this was denied.(Macarthur Bulls)

Football Australia told the ABC that if Macarthur did not play the match in Yangon, the club would have been forced to withdraw from the competition.

“Both Macarthur FC and Football Australia formally requested the match be shifted to neutral territory considering the DFAT travel advice. The club also offered to meet the costs of this shift, where the request was denied,” a Football Australia spokesperson said.

“Having exhausted these alternatives, the club made the decision to play this match as drawn and scheduled.

“Football Australia arranged security in line with other past football events played abroad and no incidents occurred, where the team was in Yangon for a short period of time.”

The ABC understands fines can also be imposed — three A-League teams played in the AFC Asian Champions League in Qatar in 2020 despite COVID-19 concerns because they faced a $300,000 fine and two-year suspension from the tournament if they withdrew.

‘What were the football managers thinking?’

Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who was arbitrarily detained by Myanmar’s military junta for more than 650 days, told the ABC the decision to play soccer in the country where he was incarcerated was a questionable one.

“I think it incredibly unwise for an Australian soccer team to go to Myanmar,” he said.

“Unwise politically – the visit can be used by the regime to suggest international acceptance – but unwise for reasons of safety too.”

Caucasian man and Asian woman in an embrace looking at the camera.

Sean Turnell and his wife Ha Vu were reunited last year after he was detained in Myanmar.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Chris Sidoti, a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, said it was surprising given the “absolutely appalling” security situation in the country.

“This Australian football team went into Yangon – a place where there are killings and bombings on a daily basis – against the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” he said.

“Really, what were the football managers thinking? It placed their team at very high risk.”

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